Category Archives: Destinations

Stratford, Ont. – Traditional with a Twist

The city’s magnificent City Hall.

I had not been to Stratford, Ont., for a few years and this time I was surprised by some great food, chocolate (in a realm of its own) and a marvelous transportation option. Getting there was a breeze. You can hop on a $29 bus from downtown Toronto as long as you have purchased a theatre ticket. So relaxing!

Welcoming cocktails at The (Old) Prune’s Bar 151.

After the two-hour bus ride, which picked me up at 10 a.m. from in front of the InterContinental Hotel, it was time for lunch. The (Old) Prune was located in the historic downtown in a lovely old house that has been remodeled. Casual yet sophisticated, they offered locally inspired cuisine and the newest addition, Bar 151 offered creative cocktails.

Delectable garden radishes.

I sampled a number of dishes including garden radishes with wasabi butter and sea salt, mussels escabeche, and foie gras & chicken liver mousse (restaurant owner Shelley Windsor’s favorite. “I almost gave myself gout, I ate so much one year,” she confided.)

The main plate was spring pea ravioli with morel mushrooms, white sesame and wild leeks. So fresh! Dessert was a delicate chevre cheesecake with macerated rhubarb and fennel. Shelley Windsor, from Cornerbrooke, Newfoundland, and her husband Bill, moved to Stratford 18 years ago from New Brunswick. “We had an opportunity to go to Vancouver or Stratford. We chose lifestyle over career,” says Shelley. But career has taken off, too, and they now own numerous restaurants in town including Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall. It’s also interesting to point out that the Stratford Chef School, renown for education some of the country’s best chefs, started off in the Prune kitchen.

Gallery Stratford, housed in the old Pump House.
An exhibit by Libby Hague featured provocative wood cuts.

My group, a number of journalists and local Stratford tourism reps, boarded a bus to get to our next destination. It was supplied via Meet Stratford Road Trips. The company offers lots of options to explore the surrounding countryside but we focused on in-town attractions – Gallery Stratford and Stratford Perth Museum. Gallery Stratford is one of Ontario’s longest operating public art galleries, open since 1967. Contemporary exhibitions focus on regional and Canadian art. Located in the former pump house, its a five minute walk from Stratford Festival Theatre and the Avon River. The gallery is open seven days a week, making it a pleasant stop before a matinee. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.

Me and the Biebs.

At Stratford Perth Museum, I walked through the front door and pop phenom Justin Bieber popped out to meet me. Well, his cardboard cutout, that is. The Steps to Stardom exhibit (which runs until November) chronicles the Stratford native’s journey to the top of the charts, starting with busking in front of the Avon Theatre to raise money for a trip to Disney World with his mom. “The exhibit opened last February and lineups started at 6 a.m. People came from all around the world including Paris, Berlin, and Australia. The Belieber Community is really strong online. They took shots, tagged them, and the exhibit grew,” notes Kelly McIntosh, the museum’s administrative co-ordinator.

If you want to be in the heart of the action, there are a couple of downtown boutique hotels to chose from including Bentley’s Lofts, bi-level loft suites, or the Mercer Hotel, with Jacuzzi tubs and faux fireplaces. Both are close to restaurants, shops and all four theatres. I stayed in the Mercer Hotel and loved being able to pop downstairs to shop on Ontario Street’s many unique boutiques.

The Common’s uncommonly delicious green Thai curry.

One dinner to remember was at The Common with Chef Tim Otsuki, a Stratford Chefs School alumnus. The menu was a fustion of Asian, Caribbean and North American dishes featuring many local ingredients. My meal in a bowl was a green Thai curry that had subtle flavours of lemongrass and just the right nip of hot spice.

Chef Eli demonstrates the proper way to dice an onion.
Getting my shallot chop down.
Voila! The perfect French omelette.

At the Stratford Chefs School Open Kitchen you can take a one-off cooking class and our group opted for a champagne breakfast. Latkes with smoked trout, French omelette, and puffed pastry with rhubarb and strawberries was a decadent way to start the day. My biggest takeaway was learning how to make a French omelette. Now I need to practice at home! Thankfully, chef Eli Silverthorne was an excellent and patient instructor.

On the chocolate line at Rheo Thompson Candies.
Mint Smoothie madness – ice cream, coffee, liqueur and tea!
At Rheo Thompson they understand the importance of the giddy up.

The sweetest part of my adventure was a visit to Rheo Thompson Candies. Traditional recipes dating back to the 1930s have made this spot a favourite for locals and visitors alike. The Mint Smoothies were to die for — I especially liked the dark chocolate version with a dark chocolate peppermint center. The company is 50 years old and was bought from original candymaker Rheo Thompson in 1992 by Christine and Mark Steed. Christine was born and raised in Stratford and is adamant about keeping her customers happy. “We don’t monkey with the traditional recipes Rheo Thompson used, especially the Mint Smoothies which we are famous for.” They also make around 150 other confections including pecan patties, humbugs and fruit jellies. Plus, now you can get Mint Smoothie coffee, ice cream and liqueur.

Phil Buhler demonstrates a flight of beer fantasy.

A working man’s kind of place, Jobsite Brewery, is also very family friendly and served great wood oven pizza. Opened last August , the location used to be a lumberyard and inspired the name. The two owners are also agricultural construction dudes (need a manure pit installed?) and converted the site into a brewery in a scant two months. Phil Buhler and Dave Oldenberger view beer production similar to construction. “We love producing a product and seeing people enjoy,” explains Buhler. A cute touch was the different coloured construction nails you use to pick out the beers for a flight. My favourite brew was the Impact IPA with delighful grapefruit notes.

Ash Moore demonstrates the art of the pour at Junction 56.

Junction 56 Distillery is the place to go for creative spirits. Along with vodka, gin and whiskey, they make a Fireshine liqueur with cinnamon, the Rheo Thompson Mint Smoothie liqueur and a rhubarb gin. Owner Mike Heisz worked at Blackberry as an engineer but got tired of making lists of people to lay off. “I wanted to work for myself,” he says noting that now he uses an iPhone. The distillery opened in 2015 and now offers 15 products, five of which are available in the LCBO – vodka, gin, black raspberry gin, Rheo Thompson’s Mint Smoothie (soon to come) and Moonshine.

Being a chocoholic, I couldn’t resist doing Stratford’s Chocolate Trail. For $30 you get six vouchers to trade for delicious treats in various shops. At the MacLeod’s Scottish Shop I scooped some chocolate chip shortbread, at Buzz Stop a quarter-pound bag of Bavarian Chocolate Coffee, at Rheo Thompson four Mint Smoothies, at Olive Your Favourites an aged dark chocolate Balsamic vinegar, at revel coffee cafe a mocha coffee/steamed milk concoction, and at Treasures a jar of Nith Valley Apiary’s cocoa honey. Chocolate heaven!

Chef Ryan O’Donnell at Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall shows off one of his Asian-inspired creations.
Our server (another Ryan) was in charge of the dessert flights.

Dinner my last night was a Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall. Executive Chef Ryan O’Donnell is an afficiando of Japanese fusion cuisine and some of the small plates I dug into included Karaage fried chicken pieces, crispy tuna sushi roll, pulled pork toastada with spicy BBQ sauce and a Spider Dog 2.0 with flaming chorizo sausage, Desserts are pretty amazing here, too.

The fantastic Festival Theatre where Billy Elliot was playing.

Theatre is what Stratford is really known for, and that night I witnessed a performance of Billy Elliot at the Festival Theatre. It was top-notch and the actors received a standing ovation.

The beautiful Avon River.

As I climbed on the 11 p.m. bus, that picked me up right at the theatre, I looked forward an easy trip home. But that night the Raptors became NBA champions. Many downtown streets were closed for the jubilant crowds, so the driver dropped us off at Islington subway station. No complaints from me, the subway was still running and I avoided traffic jams.

Stratford is a dining delight, a cultural treasure and beautiful, to boot. Definitely worth the two-hour drive from Toronto. Especially when taking the special Stratford bus!

Philadelphia’s Historic Playgrounds

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No matter what, kids love to play. And if it’s in a historic spot, all the better. But these spaces take a lot of elbow grease and creative fundraising to remain safe and in repair. Transformation of an historical building into a child’s fun/learning zone takes even more.
Philadelphia’s kid-friendly, history-steeped playgrounds are Franklin Square, a once a neglected magnet for the homeless that boasts a sparkling carousel and a mini-golf homage to the city’s history; Victorian-era Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse which underwent a multi-stage restoration, including that of a much-loved treasure, the giant slide; and Please Touch Museum, the nation’s first children’s museum in Memorial Hall, originally the Art Pavilion during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.
FRANKLIN SQUARE
It may have been one of the three remaining green space squares that founding father William Penn designed for Philadelphia in the 1700s, but that didn’t mean it was always treated like an historic gem.
“Daycare workers used to clean away the drug paraphenalia in Franklin Square every morning before letting their charges use the playground,” says Amy Needle, CEO of Historic Philadelphia Inc.,founded in 1994 to promote tourism. Needle’s group, along with Fairmount Parks, is responsible for the 7.5-acre square’s rebirth.
Reopened in 2006, the square, which is a few blocks from Independence Mall at 6th and Race Streets, cost $6.5 million to renovate. It’s star attractions are a carousel painted with Philly scenes including boathouse row, a mini-golf game that features music by homegrown stars such as Patti Labelle, and food vendors with brotherly love staples such as soft pretzels.
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The inclusion of Philadelphia Park Liberty Carousel, 36 feet in diameter and outfitted with 30 carved figures (including a sea dragon and eagle), is fitting since Philadelphia was once the carousel-making capital of the world. In the mid-19th century it was home to three manufacturers, Philadelphia Toboggan Company, Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia and D.C. Mueller & Bro. The carousel in the square today was made by Chance Morgan Co. in Wichita, Ka., using original moulds from the Dentzel Carousel Company and Philadelphia Toboggan Company.
SMITH MEMORIAL PLAYGROUND & PLAYHOUSE
Deep in East Fairmount Park is an imposing three-story Beaux-Arts mansion, built just for kids. Designed by architect James H. Windrim at the height of the late nineteenth century Play Movement, the 24,000-square-foot Playhouse opened in 1899 and has remained open ever since.circus_practice
Outside on the Playground’s six-and-a-half acres, is the Giant Wooden Slide —a 40-foot-long, 12-foot-wide, 10-foot-high covered maple slide that was installed in 1905 and fits up to twelve children abreast.PlayhouseSlidepictureJuly2003_005 “The slide is one of the most unique sights I’ve ever known. There has been an enormous affection for it for generations,” notes Hope Zoss, the site’s executive director.
In 2003, the Playground closed due to the equipment not being up to safety standards. With the help of a donation of $325,000 from a 92-year-old donor who had fond memories of the slide as a child, upgrades were made and it reopened in 2005, bearing her daughter’s name, the Ann Newman Giant Wooden Slide.The second phase of improvement took place the following year with the installation of 18 swings. The Playhouse, which is aimed primarily at the under-five set, offers indoor activities such as riding tricycles through a child-sized “town,” and a puppet show theatre.
Richard and Sarah Smith (he was a wealthy Philadelphian who made his money in typesetting) built the site as a memorial to their son and as a country play haven for inner-city children. Since opening, it has drawn up to 1,000 visitors a day, from every income level. In 1977 it was listed on the City Historic Register.
Zoss notes that the Richard and Sarah Smith Trust of “two million dollars” is used for day-to-day operations and the funds for the improvements, estimated at “$10 million dollars,” are being raised through “individuals, foundations corporations and government agencies.”
MEMORIAL HALL PLEASE TOUCH MUSEUM
Memorial Hall, built for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in West Fairmount Park after its inception as an Art Pavilion, served a few purposes, including headquarters for the Fairmount Park Commission. Its new role as the Please Touch Museum is far more playful.
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The Beaux-arts building reopened in 2008 with 135,000 square feet of exhibits including a 40-foot high replica of the Statue of Liberty arm and torch created by artist Leo Sewell out of toys (the statue’s original arm and torch graced the 1876 exhibit), and a 1924 Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia carousel, on loan from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Originally, the carousel operated at Woodside Park, less than 10 blocks away. Additional exhibits include a flight fantasy area with propeller bike and flying machine and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with rabbit hole slide. Plus, there are other hands-on displays of inventions unveiled at the 1876 fair such as the typewriter and root beer.
Memorial Hall, a National Historic Landmark, was renovated according to standards set by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Of the museum’s $88 million budget (raised through government, individuals and corporations), $40 million went into building upgrades such as new windows. Much of the renovation involved removal of 1950s intrusions such as dropped ceilings.
“It was in good shape structurally when we got it. The soaring atrium is 150 feet tall and was concealed by walls that had been put in,” explains Willard Whitson, the museum’s vice president, exhibits and education. The decorative filigree and statuary uncovered around the atrium dome are in “wonderful condition,” says Whitson.
It’s a happy fact that history, when preserved and sprinkled with imagination, can deliver a whole lot of fun and learning for kids and adults alike. Technology might be making advances at the speed of sound, but Philly’s historic play havens prove that old fashion fun still has power for today’s kids.

Munching my way Through Chinatown & Kensington Market

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It was a cold morning in early January, but that didn’t stop us. My husband and I bundled up and headed out to Spadina Ave. and Dundas Street. This colourful area has been a draw for me ever since I was in university. Coconut buns, egg tarts, cheeses of the world, fruits, spices and funky boutiques. I have always loved it, but lately I haven’t spent much time down in Toronto’s Chinatown/Kensington Market area and I thought what better way to get acquainted with all that was new and delicious than take a three-hour food tour? I had been on one in the city’s east end with Culinary Adventure Co. in the fall, so we decided to try them again. And Forbes Magazine has called this one “one of the best food tours in the world.” You can’t buy endorsements like that.
CatPoleOur guide, Daniel G., met us under the yellow chair, topped with a waving cat. It’s one of the art installments along this stretch of Spadina. In China the cat waving its left paw is a sign of welcome. Aha! That’s why Asian shops always have those waving kitty figures in their front windows. “Back at the turn of the last century, Kensington Market was filled with fish mongers…and feral cats,” Daniel explained, noting the two neighbourhoods are intrinsically tied.
RolSanExteriorCrossing the street, we headed into Rol San, a restaurant with a huge exterior banner stating that it serves dim sum all day long. I had actually been here before, but today the dishes we tried were all new to me. Sitting at a table draped in white plastic (for easy clean up, the waiters just lift the whole thing, dishes included and whisk it to the back), we went through the yellow paper menu. Bottomless jasmine tea was $1 per person. The small plate dishes ranged from $4-5. Daniel told us the family-run business had opened in 1994 and in 1999 it became an all day dim sum spot, now open from 9 a.m.-2 a.m. “It’s the go to place to sober up late at night,” he joked.
RolSanMushroomDumplingFirst to the table was the bamboo fungus with mixed mushrooms dumpling. Delicious, especially when dipped into the hot, homemade chili sauce that graced every table. The next three dishes came at once. RolSanChineseDonutRice rolls with Chinese donut – a deep fried donut wrapped in gooey rice roll that we dipped into a mixture of spicy, sweet hoisin sauce and peanut sauce. I probably should have saved that for last. RolSanTripeNext came beef tripe with ginger and scallions, and steamed BBQ pork buns. The tripe was chewy, nicely offset with the tangy ginger and scallions. RolSanPorkBunThe pork buns were puffy and filled with a sweetish pork mixture.
LongAnAs we departed, Daniel treated us to some longan fruit. About the size of a grape, he told us to peel it and be careful of the hard seed in the middle. As I bit in, the flesh reminded me of lychee, but the flavour was more like a plum. “The name translates to ‘dragon eye,’” he said motioning to the fruit stand we were now standing in front of. “You can pick them up here, one of the oldest produce stores in Chinatown.”
This was just the start. We had three more restaurants to visit, plus some other little nibbles along the way. I knew I had better start pacing myself.
KingsNoodleExteriorKing’s Noodle, also on Spadina, specialized in BBQ pork and duck. They proudly use every part of the animal and we peered in the window at a pig’s head, and many hanging ducks, wizened and reddish with barbequing. “Stanley and Grandee Lee are the owners and the restaurant opened in 1984,” Daniel told us. Stan had been a chef in a hotel in China before he came to Canada, but the hotel specialized in western food. Now he and his wife serve multi-generations of clients with Cantonese dishes such as congee with ginger, onion and BBQ pork. KingsNoodleFrontKitchenThe pork, Daniel explained, was marinated, then cooked slow and low for hours, giving it a caramelized coating. KingsNoodleCongeeWe filled our bowls with the congee, a soupy rice porridge and dove in with our chopsticks for succulent pieces of pork. I loved how the chili oil here had a smoky flavour and blended beautifully with the congee. We also sipped an earthy black Chinese tea and dipped squares of deep-fried bread into our bowls to complete the taste experience.
Walking up to Kensington a few blocks away, Daniel stopped and pulled out a White Rabbit. WhiteRabbitSweetsWhite Rabbits are Chinese sweets and he had a bag full. We sucked on the mild, vanilla flavoured treats as he told us about Kensington Market. KensingtonSignThe history goes back to 1815 when George Taylor Denison had an estate on a 100-acre piece of land just west of Spadina Avenue. Eventually the land was divided into plots sold to British and Irish immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s. In the early 1900s came an influx of Eastern European immigrants and many of the Jewish families built outdoor stalls in front of their homes turning the area into an outdoor, old-world style marketplace. That trend has continued and today the area is very diverse, perhaps the latest immigrants to populate the shops are from the Caribbean and South America. The people here are fiercely independent and you won’t see any chain stores. “Sobey’s was going to open an outlet, but when they put up their sign, the residents rebelled and threw eggs at it,” Daniel recalled.
SanCosmeCounterAcross from Global Cheese on Kensington Avenue at the corner of Baldwin Street was a Mexican torteria called San Cosme. This was brand new to me. We sidled up to one of the high stools at a communal table and Daniel headed to the counter, returning shortly with a sweet, creamy rice drink with a hint of cinnamon called horchata and a huge veggie sandwich called a De Nopales, that sells for $9.95. SanCosmeSandwichThe sandwich contained sautéed cactus, panela cheese, tomatillo, serrano salsa, refried beans and avocado. It was hot and richly delicious, the cactus having a little slippery, pickled taste. San Cosme is an authentic Mexico City style puesto (street food stand), serving tortas – sandwiches done a la plancha in buttered soft telera bread stuffed with assorted fillings along with pickled jalapeños. “They support their neighbours by sourcing many of their ingredients right in Kensington Market,” Daniel explained.
Time for another sweet treat. CXBOExteriorWalking along Baldwin, we came upon a jewel box of a store called CXBO Chocolates. CXBOInteriorEntering, a portrait of Willy Wonka greeted us, along with a case of the most divine looking art pieces. Well, they were actually chocolates. Daniel had us each pick one. CXBOBonbonI went for a dark chocolate salted caramel (their most popular) while my husband opted for a milk chocolate with sherry. The handmade collection was created in 2015 by chef Brandon Olsen and artist/filmmaker Sarah Keenlyside. “In 2017, they opened Restaurant La Banane, named Canada’s Best New Restaurant in 2017,” said Daniel. I noticed on the counter was a huge chocolate egg covered in splatters of edible colour. The Ziggy Stardust Disco Egg is served at La Banane and has been frequently called the “most Instagrammable dessert,” the counter clerk told us. Decadent! Not sure how much it costs at the restaurant (in another part of town, on Ossington Avenue) but at the shop it was $50. I was more than satisfied with my salted caramel and found out that a box of 9 cost $22.50. They also had a selection of bars for $9 (the Kensington Bar has apricots, chili and coffee) that I wouldn’t mind trying next time.
WandaExteriorWith just a tiny slice of room left, we headed to Wanda’s Pie in the Sky, a funky bakery café around the corner on Augusta Avenue. WandaInteriorInside it was strictly old school with hardwood floor and glass case after glass case filled with savouries, cakes, pies and cookies. We were there for the pie. “Wanda Beaver started out making sour cherry pies, using fruit from her family’s small orchard when she was a child. As an adult, she began baking for consumers at a location in Etobicoke, but she’s since moved to Kensington Market,” said Daniel. WandaPieHe had brought a tray over with a small Ontario sour cherry pie and three plates. “I’m a sweets guy. This is my favourite item on the menu here,” he continued. We divided up the flaky pastry and juicy fruit and I took a bite. OMG. The crust was slightly sweet with a hint of almond. The sour cherries were floating in a bath of delicious sweet-tart goodness. What a note to go out on!
Culinary Adventure Co. offers tours in Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg year round and from June until end of September in Charlottetown, Kingston and Halifax. In Toronto they offer King + Queen St. W. brunch, St. Lawrence Market, Leslieville/Riverside and Kensington Market/Made in Canada, and Escape the City Canoe Paddle + Dining Adventure tours in addition to Chinatown/Kensington Market. Maximum number of people is 12 and costs start at $80 per person.

Metropole Hanoi’s Amazing Legacy

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The plush Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is a standout of French colonial architecture and was a favourite place of mine to have an afternoon coffee, evening cocktail by the pool or special birthday dinner. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhy? It boasts a rich history and many cultural icons have stayed and created literary works here over the years. Designed by architects André Ducamp and Gustave-Émile Dumoutier, the hotel’s doors opened in 1901. After a secret marriage in Shanghai in 1936, Charlie Chaplin spent his honeymoon here with one of Hollywood’s famous female stars, Paulette Goddard. The hotel even named a suite in Chaplin’s honour.MetropoleCitroensVintage Citroens that are available to guests for city jaunts.
Celebrated British authur Somerset Maugham wrote The Gentleman in the Parlour about his observations in Indochine and Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American. Greene stayed at the hotel in 1951 as a war correspondent and his experiences discovering “the third force” (covert support of the CIA) inspired him to write a novel that illuminated Vietnam’s independence struggles and the United States’ interference. A very insightful read about how the seeds of the Vietnam War were sown. Both Maugham and Greene also have hotel suites named after them, as well.
joanbaez-painting_at_lobby_hanmetIn the 1960s, a bomb shelter was built in the basement and in 1972, during the Vietnam war, actress and anti-war activist Jane Fonda stayed here, as did singer/songwriter Joan Baez. On her return from Vietnam in 1973, Baez released the album, Where Are You Now, My Son? that includes the air-raid sirens and dropping bombs she heard outside. Baez has give up singing for painting and on a trip to Hanoi in 2013 she stayed at the hotel and painted a portrait of a young Vietnamese boy which is now hanging in the lobby.joan_baez_painting-famoushotels Here’s a shot I took from the Metropole website of Baez completing the painting.
More recently, in 2009, the hotel named its new restaurant Angelina after actress and guest Angelina Jolie whose son Pax was adopted from an orphanage in Vietnam. Other movers and shakers who have stayed here include Mark Zuckerberg, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel.
And me? Well, I like to eat, drink and get inspired here, especially on the gorgeous terrace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Activities and Legends of Halong Bay

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Halong Bay is around a three-hour drive northeast of Hanoi and well worth the trip. The UNESCO World Heritage Site’s name translates to “descending dragon” and the bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various shapes and sizes. Halong Bay is a center of a larger zone which includes Bai Tu Long Bay to the northeast, and Cat Ba Island to the southwest. These larger zones share a similar geological, geographical, geomorphological, climate, and cultural characters. The area has amazing kayaking and there are many caves to explore. BoatsCove copyMy husband and I took an overnight junk boat trip and were able to spend an afternoon paddling past the towering stone formations. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe caves were also a delight to walk through, having paths and colourful lighting.
HaLongKayaking copySearching around on the web, I found a site called HalongHub that describes some of the legends of the area. According to the tales, when the land was newly formed, the Vietnamese forefathers had to fight against fierce invaders coming from the North by sea. The gods from the heavens watched, then sent the Mother Dragon and her children to help the Vietnamese people defend their country. The dragons descended upon the earth, incinerated the invaders and spat jewels of emerald and jade that upon hitting the land, turned into great islands and islets that formed invincible defensive walls that the invaders could not overcome. The enemies fled and peace finally returned to this Southeast Asian country. After the battle, the Mother Dragon and her children did not return to the heavens, but stayed in the mortal world. HBCaveKayaks copyTo this day, the dragons lay on the lands they helped protect and it is their shapes that form the bays iconic mountainous landscape. The area called Bai Tu Long literally means ‘Thanks to the Dragon children’ and their tails form the area of Bach Long Vi while the great Mother Dragon forms Halong Bay, which literally translates as ‘Descending Dragon Bay.’ MoCatBaCat Ba island is the biggest island in the region. Here, during times of war (even as recently as the American War) women produced supplies such as medicines, bullets, and clothes for men fighting on the front lines. The nearby island where men often fought enemies was called Cac Ong island meaning “Island of Men.” The island where the women lived was named “Cac Ba” which eventually morphed into “Cat Ba” island which means “Island of Women.”

Truc Bach, Me and John McCain

Truc Bach Lake Lawn Chairs, HanoiWhen I lived in Hanoi, I had an apartment in the quiet enclave of Truc Bach. It is on tiny Truc Bach Lake, a diked off portion of Tay Ho Lake. I was a little shocked to learn this is where the late Senator John McCain landed when he was shot down during the Vietnam War (known here as the American War), in 1967. Searching the internet I learned that US Navy aviator John McCain was shot down by anti-aircraft missile on a mission against a Hanoi powerplant and parachuted wounded into Truc Bach Lake, nearly drowning. He was dragged out of the water and beaten by city residents who were angry at having seen the area razed by previous U.S. attacks. He was later taken away as a prisoner of war. cof Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
I came upon a monument marking his downing called Tchen Sney Ma Can on the western shore of the lake. Beside the depiction of a downed airman, there’s an inscrption in Vietnamese saying, “On Oct 26, 1967, at Truc Bach Lake, the military and people of Hanoi arrested Major John Sidney McCain, a pilot of the American Navy’s air force.”DefenseSecAshCarter2015This shot (courtesy the U.S. Defense website) is of Defense Secretary Ash’s visit to Hanoi in 2015.
Apprently, when McCain made a trip to Vietnam in 1985, he returned to this spot. A lot has changed since his horrible experience. Most people in Vietnam are under the age of 30 and don’t even know who he was. Plus, the Truc Bach and Tay Ho area is now filled will posh hotels including the Sofitel, the Hanoi Club and the Sheraton. It’s a very desirable neighbourhood.OnTrucBachBridgeTrucBackNight
FAST FACTS
1) Truc Bach was separtated from Tay Ho by the construction of a dike in the 17th century, allowing inhabitants to fish. Today, it is extremely polluted although there are still lots of fishermen and nets to be seen. I would advise against eating anything caught here.
2) In the 1700s, Truc Lam Palace was constructed on the lake shore. It first served as a pleasure palace housing concubines, but was later converted in to a prison for royal concubines found guilty of crime. The silk they produced became known as ‘Bamboo Village’ Silk and was famous for its beauty. At the time, the area was known also for its crafters of bamboo blinds.
3) According to history, during the Le Dynasty (1428 – 1527), people of the 5 villages Dong Mai, Chau My, Long Thuong, Dien Tien and Dao Vien (from Hung Yen and Bac Ninh provinces), who were skillful at bronze casting, migrated to the capital to establish a casting workshop for business. They settled in the Truc Bach area and set up a new village called Ngu Xa to remember their five original villages. Afterwards they reorganized into a separate professional guild called Ngu Xa bronze-casting guild. Nowadays Ngu Xa Street is still there to the east of the Truc Bach Lake, in Ba Dinh District. There’s a really interesting article that gives more detail on the bronze casters there who are still practicing their craft by Vu Thu Ha in the Viet Nam News.

Tet Flower Power in Hanoi

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In Hanoi, the biggest holiday of the year is Tet, celebrating the Lunar New Year. Tet usually falls around late January/early February and has to be the biggest season for flower sellers, especially at Quang Ba Flower Market, in Tay Ho, near where I lived. I noticed marumi kumquat plants were in as high demand as evergreen trees at Christmas in the West. P1170842A couple of weeks before Tet, the streets are crowded with motor scooters burdened with bushy green pyramids covered in with small orange fruit. Although the fruit looks like a mandarin orange, it is sour (the peel is the sweetest part) and few people eat them. P1170832The kumquat tree symbolizes gold, wealth, unity and perfection.  So the selection on each tree purchased is not taken lightly. The marumi kumquat is a tree with five characteristics that must be considered when buying – fruit, flowers, leaves, branches and roots. Combined, they symbolize wealth and happiness for the new year. Tips for choosing a good plant? KumquatDeliverThe tree must have both ripe and green fruit, mature leaves and new buds. If it has all these, the family will enjoy wealth and luck in the new year.
Another popular item at the nursery is peach trees since its flowers blossom in spring – sometimes even during Tet holidays, but it was too cold for this during my time there. Vietnamese believe this symbolizes a strong vitality and brave heart. The colour of the flowers is important, too. In Hanoi, the dark pink blossom is favoured, showing the love and joy spread among people in this unique time of the year.

Hanoi’s Imperial Citadel

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Hectic Hanoi is full of history and while living there I found a little slice of peace on the grounds of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Bonsai plants and random buildings were scattered throughout the complex’s almost 20 hectares. Plus, I was able to examine all sorts of architectural relics that had been uncovered in the ongoing excavations. There isn’t a lot of explanation available in English onsite, so I did a bit of my own digging. According to Wikipedia, the royal enclosure was first built during the Lý dynasty (1010) and subsequently expanded by the Trần, Lê and finally the Nguyễn dynasty. It remained the seat of the Vietnamese court until 1810, when the Nguyễn dynasty chose to move the capital to Huế. FrenchSoldiers 1883 DragonStairsFrench soldiers taking photos on the steps of Kinh Thien Palace during the encamping period here. (Taken by Doctor Charles – Edouard Hocquard during 1884 -1885)
The royal palaces and most of the structures in Thăng Long were in varying states of disrepair by the late 19th century with the upheaval of the French conquest of Hanoi. By the 20th century many of the remaining structures were torn down. Excavations began in the 21st century and in 2004 the site was opened to the public. The central sector of the imperial citadel was listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Site on July 31, 2010.
The few remaining structures within the royal compound are the Doan Mon gate, marking the southern entrance to the royal palace, the Flag Tower, the steps of Kinh Thiên Palace and the Hậu Lâu (Princess’ Palace). Thus far only a small fraction of Thăng Long has been excavated.
CitadelFramedDoorPerhaps the most iconic of the remaining structures is the Flag Tower. Rising to a height of 33.4 m (41 m with the flag), it is frequently used as a symbol of the city. Built in 1812 during the Nguyễn dynasty, the tower, unlike many other structures in Hanoi, was spared during the French colonial rule (1885–1954) as it was used as a military post.
Citadel-GradCircle copyIf you visit during graduation season, October-November, you’ll get a chance to see the students who come to have their pictures taken. I loved seeing the young women in their gorgeous traditional garb, called ao dai.CitadelGradLongshot copyI was quite intrigued with the D67 tunnel and house, built in 1967 and found north of Kinh Thien hall. From 1954 to 1975, the North Vietnamese military command (Vietnam People’s Army) under General Giap, had its underground headquarters here.
CitadelBunkerBoardTableA connecting underground tunnel allowed for emergency evacuation in case of an attack. It was eerie to wander the halls and see the furniture and communications equipment used in the fight against the South and the United States.
Hau Lau Shot copyOne of the most restful spots in the Citadel is Hau Lau, also known as the Princess’ Palace. Originally built in 1821 during the Nguyen Dynasty for the queen and princess, it was later the residence of imperial concubines.Hau Lau Roof copy It is a mish mash architectural styles, since the French rebuilt it, but I loved the Vietnamese roof with its crescent-like bladed corners. Hau Lau View copyHardly anyone comes here, so it’s a perfect place to chill and enjoy the gardens.

More Good Eating in Banff

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I don’t eat a lot of red meat at home, but when in Rome…or I should say, Alberta, I do. Striking out from the delicious Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, I was determined to see what else the mountain town had to offer. If you want to know where the beef is on Banff Ave., go to Chuck’s Steakhouse. Shortly after sidling past the meat cooler and sitting down, our server showed us a wooden board with different types of beef on the menu, from waygu to prime cut. ChucksTasteoAlbertaOur group’s choice was to share the Taste of Alberta platter with slices of waygu, grass-fed tenderloin and a prime cut. This was casual fine dining and we learned that not only did Benchmark Angus Ranch provide all their top menu items, but the third generation of Muntons, who owned the operation, was sitting a table down from us. Good to know they approved. We did, too.ChucksChef copy Chef Tomas Bustara even agreed to pose for a picture.
The next day, a spirited prelude to lunch was had a Park Distillery. Located on Banff Ave., the main drag, it is the only distillery in a national park in Canada. ParkDistillerySampleTrayDylan Liebe, the bartender, laid out a flight of gins and vodkas, plus an unaged, clear rye. The gin used typical botanicals – juniper, coriander, lemon peel, orange peel, angelica, orris root, licorice and cinnamon – but added at top note of spruce tips. My favourite spirit was the vanilla flavoured vodka…very smooth. ParkDistilleryCocktailsThey also do pre-made, bottled cocktails that are barrel aged in ex-bourbon casks for six months, available in their little off-sales shop. The Distillers Series included a Negroni, Glacier Manhatten and Martinez. I was most intrigued with their Observation Peak (not pre-mixed), a cross between an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan that Liebe made with rye whisky, dark rum, dry Curaçao, amaro Montenegro, a touch of syrup and then, after whipping out a blow torch, he topped with a smoking cedar square. Now that’s campfire!ParkDistilleryObservationDeck
Just a tad wobbly, we headed up the gondola to the top of Sulfur Mountain and Sky Bistro. GondolaAir copyGondolaPathResto2 copyAt 7,500 feet, the views were stupendous – the generous outdoor wooden walkways and scanning scanning platforms put a shine on the $25 million renovation done two years ago. Anthony Mason, the restaurant’s senior sous chef, greeted us with a big smile and suggested we start lunch with the duck wings.SkyBistroDuckWings Easy to make a meal out of. Butternut squash salad, and fries and aioli followed, washed down with a smooth Liquidity Vignoner.SkyBistroSalad Tanya Otis, a public relations consultant with the destination told us Sky Bistro does regular wine-ticketed events that take over whole bistro. Costs are $149 for seven courses, paired with wine. Sounds like a good deal. “In the summer they use the terrace above for a sunset festival called Mountain Top Yoga with beer and champagne. Nice way to ease into downward dog.
I had been to the Banff Centre for the Arts more than 20 years ago, and it sure looks different now. Twenty per cent government funded, this unique university facility sits on 42 acres and features an art gallery with visiting exhibits and commissioned work. Artists of all genres come to work in studios, take part in workshops and spend time getting creative. Along with their lodgings, there are 217 guest rooms open to public. There’s no need to go off campus to eat, especially if you are looking for fine dining. Three Ravens opened nine years ago and Executive Chef Sebastian Tessier is proud to source mostly from local farmers. “We strive to source seasonal foods that thrive in the Canadian climate. We source Alberta ingredients and are conscious about sustainability because the food just tastes better,” he explains. 3RavensTroutWe started with smoked Alberta trout, with local winter greens, smoked aioli, beet chips, and Banff Centre grown sunflower shoots (from their cultivar). 3RavensPorkFirst course was pork tenderloin, roasted organic parsnips, charred organic red cabbage, topped with a bacon and stout jus. 3RavensElkTenderloinThe main was juniper rubbed elk tenderloin, on braised Alberta beef cheek, with local brown butter ricotta gnocchi, sautéed oyster mushrooms, and maple glazed organic carrots. 3RavensDessertWith just a sliver of room left, I dipped my spoon into a delicious Saskatoon berry compote with yogurt ice cream and FallenTimber mead reduction. Our paired wines were all from British Columbia, Tinhorn Creek Chardonnay, Stoneboat pinot noir and Gray Monk cabernet sauvignon.
Believe it or not, I was hungry the next day and brunch was at Juniper Bistro. JuniperBennyMy friend Elizabeth tucked into a Juniper Benny with bannock, buffalo mozzarella and braised rabbit while I enjoyed a tangy Shakshuka with tomatoes, onions, eggs and touch of za’atar. JuniperShakshukaOur food was matched royally with stunning mountain views.JuniperView copy
My final meal (before falling into a deep food coma) was at Sleeping Buffalo Lodge &Restaurant, a property belonging to the Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts family.SLeepingBuffLobby It was a Chef’s table event, a series that is held on Fridays in the winter. Although I was staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, our kind host Brad Royale, Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts’ wine director, told me ticketed guests receive 40 per cent of their room rate when they attend. Brad rolled out the red carpet for us, pulling all sorts of older vintages from his cellar. SleepingBuffPokeAccompanying our starter of tuna poke, with scallions, cucumber, roast sesame, crispy won ton, avocado, and wasabi foam we had a 2003 Tahbilk Marsanne, 1927 Vines (Victoria, Australia). Soft and easy with a slight tang of mineral, it set off the tuna beautifully. Pulled duck confit came next with a double smoked bacon butternut squash risotto, baby heirloom tomatoes and arugula. It was paired with a 2006 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia (Rioja, Spain) that was hearty enough to offset the richness of the duck. SLeepingBuffBisonShortRibsOur main dish was bison short ribs with potato and celery root puree, roasted baby beets and morel mushroom thyme glaze. I was eager to try the bison, since it was from Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts game ranch south of Calgary and I wasn’t disappointed. The meat was flavourful and falling off the bone. The wine was a 2004 Domaine de la Janese Chateauneuf du Pape Vielles Vignes (Rhone Valley, France). Of substantial body, it paired well with the heavy meat. SleepingBuffTripleChocoMousseI can never resist dessert, even when full, so I dug into the triple chocolate mousse with bourbon berries and raspberry black pepper sorbet. Wow. Rich and creamy and delightful with a 2005 Quinta Do Noval Silval Port (Douro Valley, Portugal).
In summary, yes, Banff offers mountain adventure, but the quality of its culinary offerings can easily make the summit of any foodie’s priority destination list. And me? I’m ready for a juice cleanse.

Biting into the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel

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I knew Banff’s mountains were jaw-dropping, but I had little knowledge of the culinary treasures to be found there until visiting this November.
It all began in the Scottish baronial castle known as the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. BanffSpringsExteior copyAfter checking into my room and gasping at the gorgeous view, I looked down at the desk and this is what welcomed me!WelcomeBoard Yeesh. A very good start. Wanting to explore the hotel’s many foodie options, I signed up for the “Eat the Castle” walkabout, led by Alberta Food Tours president and CEO Karen Anderson. “This is a history, art and architecture tour meets food tour,” she explained of the $175, two-and-a-half-hour indoor expedition. The tour is billed as sampling both food and beverages in four of the hotel’s onsite noshing venues. My group was also lucky enough to have the hotel’s executive chef Robert Ash join us. Ash had just joined the Fairmont four months prior (previously he had been resort executive chef for Omni Hotels in Orlando) and his dedication to every detail was deep.
Our first stop was at Stock Food & Drink, a breakfast, lunch and snack emporium off the lobby.Stock Robert stopped in front of the cultivar, a set of temperature-controlled wall cabinets with grow lights and trays of tiny seedlings.Stock-Cultivar copy “What would you like to try?” he asked. I opted for a thumb-sized sprout of kale. So tender! Other trays contained an array of tiny greens including cabbage, peas and sunflowers. The micro-greens are used in all 12 of the hotel’s restaurants and food outlets. Robert shared a bit of culinary data – the hotel sources from 25 farms in the area, there are 25 chefs in the apprentice program, 150 chefs in total and they serve between 1.5 and 2 million meals a year. Wow. Sitting at a long table in Stock, we sipped a glass of locally made Grizzly Paw Power Hound blonde ale and nibbled on a variety of sandwiches including goat cheese and roasted peppers, smoked meat and house-cured bacon and tomato.Stock-VegSam “Ninety per cent of what the hotel serves is made in house including sausages and charcuterie, bread, pastries, pickles and vinegars. We specialize in local sustainable cuisines, have an in-house butchery, and are part of the Ocean Wise Seafood program,” Ash told us.
As we made our way to the next sampling, Karen gave us a bit of hotel history. The building was the brainchild of Pacific Railway CEO George Stephens who brought in architect Cornelius Van Horne. Van Horne designed a series of gorgeous CP hotels back at the turn of the last century that connected the railway and the country and this was his second (Hotel Vancouver was the first). The Banff Springs Hotel opened in 1888 and originally was a wooden structure (and built backwards to plan!). In 1926 there was a fire and in 1928 it was rebuilt, this time of brick and stone (Rundle Rock from Mount Rundle, overlooking the hotel).MtRundle copy Karen pointed to a Latin crest woven into the lobby rug, “It spells out the hotel’s motto ‘Semper Eadem,’ Always the Same.” There have been a few additions and changes to the 754 guest-room hotel over the years, but the exterior facing of Rundle Rock has always been maintained.
At Grapes, on the mezzanine-2 level, we tucked into two boards of charcuterie, smoked trout and cheeses.Grapes-Charcut Grapes chef de cuisine Tait Robinson pointed out the three types of trout, smoked and candied with maple syrup, gravlax and a hot smoked variety with brown sugar and salt. The hot smoked was my favourite. There was also a velvety duck liver pate, elk salami, Canadian camembert with quince jam and bread and butter pickles. All paired with a light white Cote du Rhone.
Karen then held up cards with French names of a kitchen team. Chef de Partie, saucier, potager, rotisseur, grillardin, friturier, poissonnier. Who knew?
In the 1888 Chop House, we stopped by the bar to sip a deep purple blackberry margarita made with Chambord, Don Julio blanco tequila, lime juice and a pink salt and pepper rim.1888-drinks Next was the beef…a huge tomahawk chop and bison tenderloin that was sliced up family style.1888ChefSteaks In Alberta, they know how to do red meat!
The regular tours usually end with a do-it-yourself profiterole-making session in the Vermillion Room, but Chef Ash, who is partial to sweets, wanted to do something special for our little band of writers and he pulled out all the stops. What does that mean?1888Pears Poached pears dipped in dark chocolate, apple beignets with caramel sauce and ice cream, New York-style cheesecake, cake pops, candied apple pops and a chocolate mousse. A veritable dessert banquet.
The next morning was the Banff Springs behind-the-scenes tour, arranged specially for our writers group, starting in the bread and pastry kitchen. OMG. Pastry-MoTrufflesMore sugar was just what I needed and I found myself making Grand Marnier truffles at 10 a.m. with chef Pirzad Amalsadiwalla. We learned about the tempering process of heating and cooling chocolate so that it remains solid at room temperature. ChefAsh-CookiesWe even tried some of Chef Ash’s chocolate chip cookies, “Made from my family’s recipe,” he confided. The combination of pure butter and chocolate was irresistible. Pirzad told me some of his chocolate bon bons can take a day more than a day to make. He also did a demonstration of dark chocolate bark sprinkled with festive pumpkin seeds and cranberries. “Who doesn’t love making people happy with chocolate?” he responded when asked what drew him to this specialty.
In the hotel butchery we watched meat expert Derek Alexander slice up a side of beef from Benchmark Angus Ranch, outside of Calgary.Butcher “We only serve Prime, it’s one notch above AAA,” he told us.That afternoon he was scheduled to stuff sausages. What kind do they do? You name it, chicken, pork breakfast, calabrese, bratwurst, chorizo, and beef. Peeking into the cooler he showed us a rack of Christmas hams and a seasoned tray of wild boar belly. “You won’t find any store-bought deli meats here,” he said. Game meats are on many of the hotel restaurant menus, including farm-raised bison and elk. “People want to eat what they see in the park,” he explained. All the trimmings get used in a variety of ways, including in confits and mashed potatoes. Vermillion-RoastWe capped the morning with a lunch in the recently renovated Vermillion Room, where chef Ryan Watson oversaw the carving of a melt-in-your-mouth Alberta raised prime rib roast, matched with mashed potatoes, and a platter of roasted vegetables.VermillionPlate A newly introduced Sunday night special!
The Fairmont Banff Springs is truly a world of its own. It’s a place where you’ll never get bored…or hungry.
(see my next blog about Banff’s other culinary hot spots)